Forrest Alton has a message for Horry County: “Pay attention.”
The CEO of the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is hoping to build up an Horry County that takes the issue of teenage preganancy and risky sexual behaviors seriously and isn’t afraid to step in when needed.
The group, which began five years of intensive federally-funded work in Horry County back in 2010, has been directing much of those funds into current programs through a network of community partners. The idea, Alton said last week, is to spark a change through existing programs rather than spend five years building something new and then simply abandon it when the federal grant runs out.
The effort has already borne welcome fruit, with the county’s teen pregnancy rate down 30 percent from 2009 to 2011, from 50.1 pregnancies for every 1,000 teens to 35.1 for every 1,000. But the work to limit risky sexual behavior in teens is far from over, and while pregnancy rates have dropped, other rates are heading the other way. The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior report by the state’s Education Department, released last year, shows that after years of declines, many rates are starting to creep higher again, an alarming reversal.
Among those that were higher than recent years: The percentage of students who have ever had sex (56.6 percent), the percentage who had sex for the first time before age 13 (10.5 percent) and the share that is currently sexually active (41.8 percent).
Meanwhile, other numbers that we’d like to see go up instead went down, among them the percentage of sexually active students who use condoms (57.5 percent) or birth control pills (17.4 percent) and the number who have been taught in school about the danger of AIDS or HIV (81.1 percent). And the results are showing. Teenagers make up a small part of South Carolina’s overall sexually active population, but they account for 37 percent of the state’s new Chlamydia cases and 32 percent of the new gonorrhea cases.
Why highlight those statistics in an editorial about teen pregnancy? Because risky sexual behavior has all sorts of unintended outcomes for teenagers, and to their credit, the good folks at the S.C. Campaign are interested in preventing all of them.
The goal, as Alton and other staff members put it, is to both remind teenagers of their potential and that the actions they take now can have life-changing consequences. That’s where Alton is looking for help from the community as a whole, not necessarily to step in and have a sex talk with teenagers, but in many cases just to take an interest in their future. Asking a high schooler a simple question like, “where are you headed to school?” he pointed out, can help remind them that they do want more from life. Pregnancy (or any unwanted result of sex) can quickly put a damper on those hopes.
Taylor Wilson, a staff member concentrating on the Horry County effort, put it this way: “Teen pregnancy prevention is about looking at a teen and saying, ‘You’re worth your dreams.’”
The group will be focused hard on Horry County for another two and a half years, attempting to build up that community spirit that embraces teens and encourages them to reach higher. We sincerely hope that residents take the message to heart.